Afghan Irregularities Prompt Candidates’ Protests

Inter Press Service/Pajhwok News

KABUL – Voter turnout was heavy in Afghanistan’s first direct presidential election in recent history, but irregularities in the voting process prompted calls for the results to be nullified.

Due to a heavy turnout, and despite rain and snow in some mountain areas, polls stayed open an additional two hours in some provinces.

Millions of ethnically diverse Afghan voters crammed polling stations for an election aimed at bringing peace and prosperity to a country nearly ruined by more than two decades of war. Men and women voted at separate booths in keeping with this nation’s conservative Islamic leanings.

In order to prevent multiple voting, voters’ thumbs were marked with indelible ink. However, in many polling stations washable ink was used, election officials admitted today, and attributed the problem to human error.

"In some places the poll workers didn’t understand, and in others, it may have been sabotage by stealing the original markers," said Farouk Wardak, head of the Afghan election board.

Others from the election board said that the ink problem was solved on election day, and caused some polling stations to be closed for only a short time. They rejected claims that election was invalid.

Election workers in Kabul said they used the markers that were provided by the United Nations election organizers. The problem closed at least one polling station in Kabul for an hour, but it reopened when the indelible ink markers were obtained and used.

Due to the voting problems, however, 15 candidates running against interim President Hamid Karzai, asked for the election results to be canceled.

"We have decided to ask that the election should be stopped immediately and the results of today’s election are not legal or valid," said Abdul Satar Sirat, a presidential candidate, speaking of behalf of the other candidates.

But the joint UN-Afghan electoral commission ordered the voting to continue and said it would review the protest at a later date.

Karzai said the fate of the vote was in the hands of the electoral body, but added that in his view "the election was free and fair . . . it is very legitimate."

"Who is more important, these 15 candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?" Karzai said at a news conference. "Both myself and all these 15 candidates should respect our people – because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote."

The ink used on the thumbs was a major problem, said Yunous Qanooni, one of the leading opponents of the Karzai. Qanooni said he appealed to U.S. Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad to cancel the election because of the problem.

But incidents of multiple voting because of the ink problem were widely reported.

In the Hair Khana district of Kabul, a 25-year-old man who did not give his name said he was able to vote five times, because he was able to wash the ink from his finger.

Although individual voting cards were punched at the voting stations when people voted, as a way to prevent multiple voting in addition to inking fingers, many people reported having more than one voting card.

In Paktia province, reporters for Pajhwok Afghan News saw people wash the ink off their fingers, despite denials from public officials that the ink could be removed.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a voter who asked not to be identified said that he had voted twice after washing the ink off his fingers.

People in various parts of the country complained that the ink problem was reported in five separate provinces, including Kabul, Konduz, Baghlan, Nangahar and Daikundi.

Officials confirmed that independent election monitors were not allowed to observe in four provinces. Wardak, the head of the election board, said that decision was made to prevent overcrowding in the polling stations.

In Zabul province, the location of frequent pre-election violence, no incidents occurred, officials said. Rather, officials said Mullah Abdul Salam Rakiti, a top Taliban commander, as well as other known Taliban, cast their votes in the election.

One 37-year-old voter in the southern city of Kandahar, Saifudin, said he was very happy to have voted for the first time in his life. "I want the authorities to recognize this day as national holiday," he said. "It to be celebrated."

Initial results are expected in the coming days, but it may take a couple of weeks for all the votes to be counted.

(Inter Press Service)